Testing should always be part of your website maintenance, and any website development. How you choose to test can vary, but I recommend starting with a user persona exercise. This approach comes with two layers: first, group your users into meaningful user groups. Think about what these users are trying to accomplish and who they are: how old are they, where do they live, what language do they speak, etc. Second, once you have developed your user personas, stress test them with factors like comfort level with technology, emotional state, where are they in your conversion cycle, and method of access.

For example, a travel website might know from their analytics that they have a spike of bookings coming from people aged 20-30 who live in Seattle. If Seattle Twenty-Somethings are your user subgroup, how would you change your site to better fit their needs? You might make prioritize content like local bands while pushing seniors’ tours to the bottom of the page. Now, for step two, what changes if your Seattle Twenty-Somethings are leisurely searching for their next trip versus desperately seeking a last-minute flight to visit a sick relative?

For user persona work, creating a character with a name will help solidify the personality in your head. It will likely feel silly, but it’s a great tool, especially if you have more than one person working on your website. These personas can easily extend into your communications and marketing work as well - before long, you’ll hear someone ask in a brainstorm session, “but will Snapchat Sally read this?” and you’ll know your work has been a success.

Let’s apply this logic to the higher education sector. Even if HE isn’t your area, this exercise will show you the types of groups and factors to consider across the board.

1. Snapchat Sally

Demographically, this persona is likely in the 18-30 year old range. They are social-media savvy, accessing primarily from a mobile device, and, most importantly, they expect their information now, now, now. If they can’t find what they are a looking for, they will give up quickly and revert to Google or Twitter to find the answer. Or worse, they will go to your competitor.

What changes when Snapchat Sally is doing research as a potential student vs. when they are a fully enrolled and active student? You’ll need to put yourself in the shoes of each persona at different points in your conversion cycle. Ideally, you should be putting each test through a “worst-case scenario lens” - you’ll be amazed at how small tweaks can make a huge impact in a moment where your user is in less than the ideal state of mind.

Top Considerations: mobile-friendly version of your website that prominently offers access to your social accounts, which need to be actively monitored.

2. Continuing Ed(ward)

Continuing education is a perfect example of why you need more than one persona group. When you picture a continuing ed student, what age are they? Where are they in their life, or in their career? Continuing education students, like most student groupings, vary widely. Some may be taking on second careers, some may have never attended a post-secondary institution. Some may have young families at home while others are retirees.

With so much diversity, what assumptions can we make? Whether Continuing Ed is a senior with limited comfort with technology or a young person trying out classes before committing to a full program, both will be looking for a low barrier experience, especially as competition between schools becomes even tougher.

Top Considerations: simple interfaces and easy access to help, either live through a social media or chat function, or contextually placed based on task.

3. Working Wanda

It can be easy to think of user groups in terms of stock photography; the idyllic young student lounging on a campus lawn in designer clothes with their nose in a book and a coffee close at hand. But this kind of thinking will lead you to miss the mark. A 2015 study by Georgetown University found that 70-80% of American students were also working. About 25% are full-time students are also working full-time; 40% of undergraduates and 76% of graduate students are working a minimum of 30 hours a week. With the rising costs of education, this might not be a surprise, but what should you change to accommodate this growing group?

If you were juggling that kind of calendar (and at those percentages, maybe you are), what tools could you really use as part of an integrated HE digital experience? How about quick save options inside a posted syllabus to add due dates to your Google or iCalendar? What about a customized tool that allows students to measure progress and hit goal milestones in a course or assignment? Or time management tips as part of the login process for a student portal?

Top Considerations: integration points for more effective time management. By putting yourself in their shoes, you can make improvements that will help all of your user groups.

4. Parent Pat

For those students who are coming directly from high school, their parents may be the driving force (or at least be casting a vote) in which school is right for their child’s next step. At the very least, a parent might be the one tracking down address and contact information for a tour or campus visit. A good online experience may help tip the scales in your favour when it comes to decision time - or at least avoid leaving a bad taste in Mom or Dad’s mouth.

Parents doing research on behalf of a prospective student will have different topics they are interested in: safety, graduation rates, employment rates after graduation, and cost come to mind. It isn’t that other users won’t want this information as well, but the lens of a parent will be slightly different.

Top Considerations: Consider adding content tailored to a parent’s point of view, such as student safety. Collect that content and present it in a meaningful way from this parental perspective.

5. Second-Language Sam

The National Center for Educational Statistics in the U.S. reports that an estimated 4.5 million public school students are English language learners. If your school serves a particular second language, considering maintaining your site in both languages.

Remember, these groups can also overlap - what changes if Parent Pat is also a Second-Language Sam? Be sure to highlight programs or processes on your website already in place to help overcome language barriers such as tutoring or multi-lingual support staff. Consider some natural areas of overlap - if you have content geared towards international students, language support should appear in those spots.

Top Considerations: Multi-language support both in online formats and offline. Make sure the switch to a secondary language is prominent and easy to find in your site layout.

The Bottom Line

The possibilities are endless, and the combinations of what makes a user subgroup vs. a factor will depend on your organization’s needs. As those who were previously considered non-traditional students become more the norm, this kind of user grouping will be critical to unlocking your website’s, and your school’s, full potential.

Start simple and build in more factors as you find a need for them. Remember that customizing for one audience segment should not be at the expense of another - this is about ease of use, not personal preference. Not sure where to start? Get in touch and we can help.

Headshot of Erin Joyce, Digital Strategist at ImageX Media.
Erin Joyce

Digital, Content, and Social Media Strategist